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Autism's moral judgment gap explored

January 31, 2011|Melissa Healy, Los Angeles Times

Imagine navigating a world of social situations in which you are a very poor judge of other people's motivations and state of mind. It could seem like a very random world indeed.

That is the world as seen through the eyes of someone with profound autism.

Without the capacity to infer or deduce correctly what other people know, and why other people act as they do, one's sense of cause and effect is severely impaired. When bad things happen, you can only assume it was the work of bad people acting badly. That a person could innocently do harm by acting on a mistaken belief would be difficult for you to understand.

Most humans develop this so-called theory of mind by the time they are 4 or 5 years old, and it helps shape our sense of moral judgment. While those with autism may develop such social-reasoning skills late, some never develop them at all. People with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder, such as Asperger's syndrome, often manage to develop strategies that help them deduce other people's states of mind and thus function in society. But a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that these people still have trouble using theory of mind to make complex moral judgments.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recounted the following story to 54 subjects (roughly half of them diagnosed with high-functioning autism) and asked them to rate the morality of the main actor:

A woman named Grace is touring a chemical plant with a friend and takes a break to get her friend and herself coffee from a machine. At her friend's request, she adds white powder from a bowl labeled "sugar" to the friend's coffee. The white powder is actually a deadly material left there by a scientist at the plant, and the friend dies after drinking it.

People without autism -- at least those older than 5 -- typically do not judge a person's behavior immoral if the person has acted with good intentions but on the basis of bad information. But subjects with high-functioning autism were far more likely than their "neurotypical" peers to judge Grace harshly in this instance.

In a story of "attempted harm," Dan gives a visitor a tour of a laboratory where toxic substances must be sealed behind glass to protect visitors. Dan thinks the sealing device is broken, and lets the visitor enter the lab anyway. But because a repairman has, in fact, repaired the device, the visitor is unharmed.

In this case, neurotypicals are likely to judge Dan harshly because he sent a visitor into danger having every reason to believe the visitor would be harmed. But those with autism were more likely to look at the outcome of the story -- nobody was hurt -- and hold Dan blameless.

The researchers, led by Joseph M. Moran, say that the right temporoparietal junction of the brain -- an area close to the back of the head, where the temporal and parietal lobes meet -- has been found to "light up" when a person is making complex assignments of moral blame. Future studies, they suggest, should look at whether autism may involve some defect in the operation of this specialized area.

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